Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On answering the call

Okay, so yesterday I ran into this guy I know. I wouldn't call him a friend; I'd call him a friend of a friend, an acquaintance, although Jesus would probably call him my brother (not to be confused with the guy my parents would call my brother). This Guy had just, he said, gotten rolled in Five Points and needed a ride to the hospital. And, in fact, he looked bad; he had a cut above his eye that would probably need stitches and one on his nose and one above his lip, his jacket was ripped, and he was wobbling around like a guy who'd had his head smacked against the pavement much in the way This Guy said his had been.

I lied and told him my car was broken.

Not that I'm trying to excuse it, but I've known This Guy for about three years, and I had my doubts that the real story was precisely as he told it. This Guy has been an alcoholic since before I met him, drinking away his wife and his two young children and his home and every job he's ever had. He's spent probably 85 percent of the last three years homeless, not counting the time he's spent in lockup. And the aforementioned Friend (of whom This Guy was a friend) had taken him in, through the goodness of his heart, to try to help him get his life back together. He'd tried to get This Guy cleaned up and sober, help him find a job, resolve legal issues, try to talk with his wife. My Friend had bailed him out of jail, helped him find a lawyer, driven him great distances, and even given him a place on his couch to sleep for a period of time as he tried to get things straightened out. And over and over, This Guy failed and came back--started drinking again, lost his job, and came back; got his girlfriend pregnant, lost the baby, came back; served time in jail on a couple of old warrants, came back; got another job, started drinking again, lost the job, came back.

Every time, My Friend took him back in. Good Christian and Democrat that he is, on matters like this, he tends toward a big heart and a small brain. Every time, he was convinced that This Guy was ready to get cleaned up and just needed to make the effort. Even when This Guy came back, even when he showed up drunk, even when he stole from My Friend, he was asked to leave and not come back--and when he came back, there was an open door and another chance.

All of this is by way of explaining, if not necessarily excusing, why my heart wasn't as big when This Guy approached me. His story was questionable, and the alcohol seeping from his pores made me wonder whether the wobbliness was due entirely to his head injury. And so when he asked for a ride, I lied and told him my car was broken. I called an ambulance and sat with him until they arrived. When they asked how I knew him, I said I was a friend of a Friend, and This Guy looked kind of stricken, like he expected me to identify him as my own friend. When the police officer who responded pulled me aside and asked me if This Guy had any "bad habits," I told him about his history, even knowing that it would probably have somewhat of a negative impact on the way he would be treated. When the paramedics asked if I would be riding along in the ambulance, I said no. And then I went home.

Last night, around 11:00, I got a call from the hospital. I recognized the number and let it go to voicemail; it was an ER nurse telling me that This Guy was ready to go and needed a ride. Half an hour later, another call, same number, and I let it go. No voicemail this time. At midnight, another call, and I denied him a third time. No more calls after that.

I could say that I had the best of intentions, that I was trying to teach him a lesson or trying to push him out of the nest or trying to give him a chance to sit in the ER and sober up, but I've done enough lying recently. I just didn't want him. He wasn't mine, he was My Friend's, and I didn't want him--not in my home, not in my car, not in a box, not with a fox. I didn't want him in my life, and so I left him in the ER, and I don't know what he did or where he is. And that doesn't feel good. It feels like I've abandoned a person in need, and while I know, intellectually, that there's nothing I could do or can do to change the way his life is going, my heart is telling me that I should have tried. And since I didn't, it's telling me I was wrong.

I'm not sure why I posted this. It might be that I'm begging people to line up in comments to assure me that I did the right thing. But I've already talked to two people about it, one of whom was the big heart with the small brain, both of whom assured me that I did the right thing. But conventional wisdom is that when you do the right thing, you know it because you feel good about it. Sitting there last night, watching the phone ring and not answering it, didn't feel like the right thing, and it doesn't feel any righter in the light of day.

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